In today’s environment of identity theft, phishing, ponzi schemes and political corruption, it can be difficult to place your trust, well, in practically anyone or any organization. Just about every medium seems to have risks attached to it. I’ve been in the middle of a phone call with a medical office and when they ask for identifying information, I start thinking, “Did I call them or did they call me? How do I know this is Dr. Smith’s office?” When I got a flu shot this year, they would not give it to me unless I gave them my social security number. Really? What does my social security number have to do with a flu shot? Are they tracking my flu shot history and will this have an impact on my ability to collect social security someday? Doubtful but…
There is a slew of misinformation in this information saturated internet tangled world. We can Google evidence for any case we want to make. In “Republic, Lost” by Lawrence Lessig, the author makes the case that whether it’s the safety of Bisphenol A (BPA) or cell phone usage an argument can be made either way. In the case of BPA, it is a chemical that has been added to hard plastics like pacifiers and teething toys for over 40 years; there has been a slew of research on its safety. When Lessig dug a little deeper, he found that the studies that were backed by industry found BPA to be safe whereas those that were funded by non-profits and educational institutions, found evidence that it isn’t safe. The same held true for the safety of cell phones. Industry backed studies found no issues with radiation. Non-industry studies found a link. Doesn’t this affect the way you view information? Once there is money to be made, is the study unbiased? What source do you trust?
Here are some tips to evaluating sources:
1. Money. Follow the money. If someone or some entity can make a buck off your trust, be wary. My son has been offered “help” from various services to get college scholarships. Most came with a very steep price. He found the help for free. Follow the money.
2. Interest. Who has your best interest? Is there a profit or commission hidden in the small print? If it’s not obvious why someone wants to help you, do some investigating. I know that I verify charities on Charity Navigator (my favorite charity, Rotary International, is 4 star). If it’s not listed on that website, unless it’s a local charity where I know someone who is directly involved, I move on.
3. Ads. Investigate the claims made in ads. 4 out of 5 dentists choose *****. Who was behind that study? How did this product or that service get rated number 1. Do your homework on the promises made in ads.
4. Source. Consider the source. Is this your neighbor or co-worker who is recommending the new restaurant in town or is it some anonymous person on Yelp. Read many reviews before committing. It’s easy to have pseudo reviewers who are really the entire related family of the restaurant owners writing glowing reviews. Make sure you know the source.
5. Age. Know how old a review or study is that you find online. Nothing aggravates me more than when I can’t tell when a review was posted online. If there is no date anywhere on the review, be careful. I’ve made the mistake of going to a restaurant in a strange town only to find it had been closed for months. If there isn’t a recent review, especially on something as volatile as a restaurant, assume it is closed. Know how old the information is.
6. Openness. Double check the deal. I remember flying into Rio de Janeiro many years ago. Some very friendly folks met us as we got off the plane with some helpful tourist information and the indication that we must purchase the booklet. The information came with a price, $60. When we asked if we “had” to buy the information, we were told no. Don’t be pressured.
7. Gut. Frequently you just have to go with your gut. Many times over thinking something actually muddies the water. Too much information can become analysis paralysis. The kid on your front porch is selling “way too expensive” wrapping paper for his cub scouts; and you know that it’s the fund raising company that’s making all the money. Maybe you don’t buy the wrapping paper and just make a donation directly to the cause. Go with your gut.
I’m not an authority on which sources to trust or not in this world. But a little caution can help avoid some pitfalls. My son recently gave a homeless guy $20. He looked him in the eye and said “spend this on some food”. I don’t know where that guy went with that $20 but I can assure you that my son learned something from the experience. Placing trust can be difficult and uncertain.